The purists Paul Follot and Maurice Dufrène

He defines that period as running from 1908 to 1950, which points up another misapprehension: that the designs on display at the 1925 Paris exposition came as a shock and a surprise to visitors. Design had begun to explore new styles shortly after the turn of the century, when interest in art nouveau—freighted by associations with Victorian era romanticism and sentimentality—began to wane. Calls for a major exhibition of new French design began as early as 1907, and successive plans were advanced in 1909, 1912, and 1914—until World War I intervened. Several postwar schemes for a show were thwarted before the event was finally staged.4 So-called pure art deco was a fully mature style in 1925, and modernism, which had taken on renewed energy after the war, was in the ascendancy. “In many ways, the 1925 exposition was really a swan song for the classically derived deco style,” says Barry Shifman, a curator of decorative arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The style was far from dead—in an indication that the design world was not ready to embrace modernism, the functionalist pavilion by Le Corbusier (1887–1965) called Esprit Nouveau was set up in an obscure corner of the exposition area.5 Follot and Dufrène worked tirelessly to showcase the best of purist deco design at the event. Follot contributed a vestibule to the show’s model “Modern French Embassy,” and, as head of Pomone, the furniture design studio of the department store Au Bon Marché, designed every room for the studio’s pavilion.6 Dufrène designed a petit salon for the embassy, the Rialto Bridge style row of shops that crossed the Pont Alexandre III, and the majority of the rooms in the pavilion of La Maîtrise, the furniture studio he ran for the Galeries Lafayette.7 For all the plaudits he won in 1925, some scholars say, Ruhlmann should have given a nod of thanks to these two men. “Follot and Dufrène had been working on a modernized classical style since at least 1903. Ruhlmann was a wallpaper designer then. He didn’t show his furniture for the first time until 1913,” says Goss. “There are gilded Ruhlmann pieces that were almost certainly inspired by Follot. I believe that Ruhlmann owes Dufrène and Follot a deep debt of gratitude.”

While the keynotes of Ruhlmann’s style are simple lines and rich finishes and materials such as ebony, shagreen, and ivory, Follot had much more voluptuous tastes. Trained as a sculptor, “Follot had a real emotional need to create beautiful things with decorative embellishments,” says Calderwood. He favored amply upholstered pieces contained in gently curved giltwood frames. A champion of ornament—“We know that the ‘necessary’ alone is not sufficient for man and that the superfluous is indispensable for him,” Follot said in 1928. “Otherwise let us also suppress music, flowers, perfumes… and the smiles of ladies!”8 The hallmark of his furniture is opulent and extensive carving, usually of stylized floral and plant forms. Writing for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1929, critic Gabriel Mourey may have summarized Follot’s style best when he noted that, in the designer’s interiors “[O]ne breathes a comfortable and precious atmosphere, sheltered from the noise, agitation, and tumultuousness of the outside world. No violence, no brutality.”9

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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